European Dragons

European Dragons

The dragon (from the ancient Greek δράκων / drákōn, from the verb δέρκομαι / dérkomai, "to see, to pierce with the eye," and from the Latin draco) is, in European tradition, a legendary winged creature possessing the tail of a saurian and whose legs end in claws.

Often depicted as a winged creature, the Western dragon is found in enclosed places, an underground lair such as a cave, which recalls its affiliation with snakes (which were themselves the object of many cults in Europe and the Middle East) and other reptilian creatures.

The terms worm (in Germanic mythology), wyrm (in Anglo-Saxon), or wurm (in Old High German) sometimes describing dragon-like creatures also mean serpent. In Slavic languages, snake and dragon are formed on the same root from the word for earth (see below). In Finnish lohikäärme literally means "snake-salmon", although the prefix lohi- may have originally been louhi-, meaning rocks, and thus giving "mountain snake".

Greek-Roman culture

Greek culture

Several creatures from Greek mythology are often considered dragons: Python, Ladon, the Hydra of Lerna, etc. But these are actually represented in ancient works as snakes, sometimes gigantic or multi-headed. It was only later that they were given the appearance of dragons in the sense in which they are represented today.

These creatures against which gods, demigods and heroes fight are direct descendants of Gaia, the last uncontrollable forces of nature, which Man tries to subdue. Thus Cadmos fought a dragon, guardian of a spring and created a civilization there: the city of Thebes.

Greek mythology also initiates the figure of the guardian creature (Ladon watching over the golden apples of the Hesperides garden, Python over the oracle of Delphi, etc.). The figure of the guardian dragon, strongly present in Western folklore of the Middle Ages, is already apparent in these reptilian creatures.

Indeed, it is from Greek that the word "dragon" comes: drákōn (δράκων) derives from drakeîn (δρακεῖν), aorist of the verb dérkomai (δέρκομαι) meaning "to see, to look with a piercing gaze". We thus find the dragon in the Greek etymological root as well as in the Greek image of the guardian, the watchman.

Roman culture

The term "draco" in Roman culture (as in Greek mythology), refers more to the snake than to the quadrupedal creature we know (thus a "dracontarium" was a crown in the shape of a snake or a "dracunculus", a small snake)

Pliny the Elder talks about dragons in his Natural History. He alludes to them by explaining the origin of "dracontia", a type of white diaphanous gemstone that cannot be polished or engraved. For him, they come from the brains of dragons but must be recovered from a living animal, which can spoil it if it feels itself dying.

He refers to a certain Sotakos who said that the people recovering these stones ride on a two-horse chariot and use a drug to put the dragon to sleep and cut off its head in its sleep.

The epithet "draconigenic" (born of a dragon) is sometimes used to refer to the city of Thebes, referring to the legend of its foundation by Cadmus who, sowing the teeth of the beast, gave birth to the Theban nobility.

The extent of the Roman Empire meant that the Greek dragon could be combined with creatures from the Near East, in the mixture of cultures characteristic of Hellenistic culture. A representation of one of these reptilian creatures of the Near East is visible on the Gate of Ishtar and bears the name of Sirrush or Mušhuššu meaning red snake.

Shortly after the expeditions to the Near East, a new form of the dragon appeared in the West. In the Roman Empire, each military cohort was identified by a signum. After the wars against the Dacians and the Parthians of Trajan in the east, the dragon entered the legion with the Sarmatarum Cohors and the Dacorum Cohors.

A dragon was attached to the end of their spear, formed by a large silver mouth terminating in a body of colored silk. When the jaw faces the wind, the body inflates with air and undulates, like a windsock. A description is given by Vegetius in his "Abridgement of Military Matters " :

"Primum signum totius legionis est aquila, quam aquilifer portat. Dracones etiam per singulas cohortes a draconariis feruntur ad proelium "

"The first sign of the whole legion is the eagle, which the aquilifer carries. Moreover, dragons are carried into battle by the draconarius of each cohort."

as well as by Ammianus Marcellinus.

Other European Dragons mythologies

During the various invasions that followed one another in Europe for more than a millennium in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the figure of the dragon gradually became associated with the invaders and took on the terrifying appearance that it would retain throughout the Middle Ages. The dragon's head is a common emblem on the standards of the Huns as well as the figurehead of Viking longships.

Celtic mythology

In Breton and Welsh mythology, which comes from Celtic traditions, the Mabinogi of Lludd and Llewellys tells of the struggle between the red dragon and the white dragon, the latter symbolizing the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Finally the two dragons, drunk with mead, are buried in the center of the Isle of Britain, in Oxford, in a stone sarcophagus.

The island should not be invaded until they have been discovered. This legend is also present in the Pendragon story. The image of the dragon is still present in the name of the famous royal line of Brittany of Pendragon, literally meaning "dragon's head" in Welsh.

The myth of the appearance of dragons, in a real or symbolic way, is frequent: thus, two dragons would have been discovered under the foundations of the castle that Vortigern, predecessor of Uther Pendragon, wanted to build, fighting each other and causing the collapse of the construction. Later, Uther saw a comet in the shape of a dragon in the sky, which would have given his name to the ruler.

A red dragon is currently represented on the flag of Wales. The players of the national rugby team have the nickname of dragons. Also in Wales, the Addanc is sometimes described as a dragon. Other times it is a crocodile or a beaver, or even a demon.

In Asturias, the Cuélebre, a giant snake, has wings but no other limbs. It is responsible, like many of these creatures, for guarding a treasure of gold coins, the wealth of the land.

German Mythology

In Germanic and Scandinavian mythology, snakes and dragons are often confused. Thus, Nidhogg, who devours the roots of Yggdrasil, is successively described as dreki ("dragon") and naðr ("viper", "serpent") in stanza 66 of the Völuspá. Several creatures from Germanic mythology take the form of lindworms, having no hind legs.

Many other examples of giant reptilian creatures exist in this mythology, for example:

  • Fafnir, a dwarf changed into a dragon by greed, who is killed by Sigurd ;
  • Jörmungand, the sea serpent surrounding Midgard;
  • the nameless dragon who is defeated by Beowulf and kills him.

The theme of the treasure dragon recurs several times in Germanic mythologies. Both Fafnir and Beowulf's dragon were custodians of gigantic and valuable treasures. They were also cursed and made those who possessed them sick.

In Welsh tradition, a white dragon is used as an emblem by the Anglo-Saxons, as opposed to the red Celtic dragon.

Scythian and Dacian mythology

The Sarmatians, a Scythian people, had signs consisting of a canine head, dog or wolf, with an open mouth, mounted on a staff and extended by a long cloth standard. This emblem was adopted by the Roman army when, in the second century, it began to develop units of cataphracted cavalry, initially composed of nationals of the Thracian, Dacian and Sarmatian peoples.

When adopting this sign, the Romans transformed the wolf's head into a snake or dragon's head: the Draco.

A description by Ammianus Marcellinus specifies that the wind, by rushing into the open mouth of the sign, produced, thanks to a reed, a terrifying howl. Some discoveries confirm the ancient representations and descriptions, such as the bronze example found in Neuwied-Niederbieber, Germany.

Slavic mythology

In Slavic mythology, dragons from old pre-Christian beliefs, often related to paganism, are called zmej (Russian and Bulgarian змей; Old Slavic and Ukrainian zmij (змій); Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Slovenian zmaj; Polish żmij). According to Vasmer, all these terms go back to Old Slavic *zmeja, a word formed on zemlja: the earth.

It is the animal that comes out of the earth, that emanates from the earth. Most of these terms are masculine forms of the Slavic word "snake" which is usually feminine (like zmeja in Russian).

Dragons are quadrupedal creatures whose generally evil temperament means that they usually hold villages to ransom, demanding young virgins as sacrifices or gold. This trait is probably one of the most similar to that of the dragons found in medieval tales and traditions throughout Europe. It can however have a beneficial role, in particular in Bulgaria where the male dragon opposes the female to protect humans.

Their number of heads varies from one to seven (or sometimes more), three or seven being the most common. These grow back when cut unless the wound is cauterized by fire (like the hydra in Greek mythology).

East Slavic tradition

A Ukrainian legend makes him a beneficial figure: the king of snakes has two small horns on his head. If you meet him in the forest, you have to attract him with a red scarf; he puts his horns there, and if you manage to take them, health, happiness and fortune are assured.

A Russian legend makes it a white snake: if you manage to get its fat, heat it and coat your eyes with it, you will acquire the gift of seeing buried treasures. In addition, witches and sorcerers used dried snake skins in their amulets (legends and facts reported by Alexander Afanasyev).

The fight with the dragon (or sometimes the snake) is also one of the most widespread subjects of tales ; it is the subject of the standard tale AT 300 in the Aarne-Thompson classification. The dragon is the typical adversary. The fight takes 3 essential forms; the Ukrainian and Belorussian tale Pea-Rooper II, contains these three forms:

  • The hero and the dragon seek to sink each other into the ground or into magically created soil. The hero eventually wins, knocking out the dragon with a club.
  • The hero fights with a sword/saber and ends up cutting off all the dragon's heads.
  • With the dragon dead, the dragoness (mother or wife) enters the scene and either uses magic to kill the hero or "opens a gaping maw from the earth to the sky". The hero, panicked, escapes only by the unexpected intervention of blacksmiths, or by the magical intervention of his horse, which jumps over the mouth.

There is no description of the fabulous animal except that it has three heads (sometimes up to twelve). It is linked to the four elements, flies, spits fire, emerges from the water, buries the hero in the earth. It ravishes young girls/women, either to live with them (like Kochtchéï), or, more frequently, to devour them. His function of devourer is central.

It is sometimes devolved to his mother and the hero does not always get away with it. The female aspect of the dragon is the most formidable.

But the dragon (the snake) can also have a beneficial role: it holds a miraculous ointment; it can resurrect a killed child. There is ambivalence. In Russia and Ukraine, the dragon can be called: Zmej Gorynytch, the dragon of the mountain, but also Chudo-Yudo, Zilante, etc.

Other Russian dragons (such as Tugarin Zmeyevich) have Turkish names, probably symbolizing the Tatars and other peoples of the steppe (Polovtses, Mongols, etc.). This explains the presence of Saint George slaying the dragon on the coat of arms of Moscow.

South Slavic tradition

In Slovenia, dragons are called zmaj, although an archaic word, pozoj, is sometimes also used. Their appearance in religion is at the same time as that of St. George, although some pre-Christian folk tales tell the story of dragons being killed in the same way as the Polish dragon of Wawel.

However, the dragon is not always considered harmful, see the one that protects Ljubljana, it is represented on the coat of arms of the city.

In Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro the term zmaj, zmej or lamja is used for dragons. In Serbia and Bosnia, these creatures are also sometimes referred to as: daždaja and daždaha respectively (see Āži-Dahāk, a creature from Persian mythology).

Dragons in Bulgarian mythology can be male or female, each with different behavior towards humans. They are often seen as siblings, representing agrarian forces. The female dragon represents the bad weather that destroys the crops, fighting her brother who protects humanity.

West Slavic Folklore

The smok wawelski is particularly well known in Poland: it terrorized the inhabitants of ancient Krakow and lived in caves along the Vistula River, under the Wavel castle. According to tradition, based on the book of Daniel, he was killed by a cobbler's boy who offered him a sheepskin filled with sulfur and tar. Thirsty from the meal, he exploded after drinking too much water.

A metal sculpture, spitting flames every 5 minutes, is nowadays in Krakow, where many tourist souvenirs are stamped with the Wavel dragon. A parade of dragons takes place every year to illustrate this "battle ".

Chuvash mythology

Chuvash dragons are different from their Turkish cousins (such as the Zilant), supposedly reflecting the pre-Islamic mythology of Volga Bulgaria.

Some reptilian creatures are better known than others:

  • The best-known Chuvash dragon is Věri Çělen (Вěри Çěлен, fire serpent), which can take on human form in order to visit men and women at night to reproduce. Like the Slavic Zmey Gorynytch, this creature has many heads and leaves a trail of fire when it flies. According to tradition, these dragons were born from illegitimate children killed by their mothers.
  • Arçuri (Арçури), a wood demon, often transforms into a snake but usually resembles the demon Şüräle.

According to the legend, when the Bulgarians arrived in the city of Bilär, they discovered a large snake there. When they decided to kill it, it begged them to leave it alive and prayed to Allah to give it wings. Once this wish was granted, it flew out of the city.

Another great serpent, or dragon, was supposed to live in a sacred pagan tower in Yelabuga. Although the Bulgarians converted to Islam around the tenth century, the snake is said to have survived until the time of the invasion by Tamerlane.

Other European Dragons folklore

Catalan and Occitan folklore

St. George, the famous Sauroctonian saint, is also the patron saint of the Principality of Catalonia. The Catalan dragon (drac) is usually presented as a huge snake with two legs, sometimes wings and more rarely quadruped. The image of the dragon as a chimera appears in Catalan representations of the dragon, which sometimes bears the head of a lion or a bull.

The Catalans distinguish the dragon from the víbria or vibra (whose name is similar to that of the viper and the vulture), a female dragon with two prominent breasts, two talons and an eagle's beak.

The Catalan drac and vibria are thus closer to the forms of the vouver or lindworm than to the image of the quadruped dragon of medieval mythology.

Present in the crown of King James I the Conqueror, the Catalan dragon is also one of the main heraldic symbols of Catalonia.

In Occitania, the drac is also found in many local legends. He is one of the main characters of the Poem of the Rhone, by Frédéric Mistral who brings him from the town of Mondragon, in Vaucluse. His name can be found in the towns of Draguignan, Montdragon but also in Dronero (Draonier, in Occitan) in the Occitan-speaking Italian valleys. Its form may however differ greatly from the classic image of the European dragon.

European Dragons in Middle Ages


The historian François Neveux indicates that "in the Viking world, [the term dreki] was first used to designate the figures sculpted on the bow and stern of ships, which often represented dragons. This fabulous animal was intended to frighten the enemy and evil spirits.

Later, the plural of the word became in modern Swedish drake in the sense of "dragons" (from Old Norse dreki, plural drekar).

Medieval literature

From medieval times, dragons frequently appear in stories and poetry.

The text Beowulf is a major epic poem of Anglo-Saxon literature, probably composed between the first half of the sixth century and the end of the first millennium. The poem is inspired by Anglo-Saxon oral tradition and transcribes a Germanic epic in verse, recounting the exploits of the hero Beowulf who gave his name to the poem, with Christian additions.

It describes a venomous dragon, the first of its kind in the world. He describes a poisonous dragon.

A venomous dragon also appears in the Old French account "Li Contes du dragon qui envenime au lécher" by Adam de La Bassée:

"(...) For the dragon dies not
But he envenomates to lick: What he can touch with his tongue
And has a tongue so malicious: (...) does not touch nor abite
That it does not poison to death: Nor does the slanderer die
But he has such a malignant tongue: Which always licks envenomates.

- Adam de La Bassée, "Li Contes du dragon qui envenime au lécher", Ludus super Anticlaudianum (1360-1380), French translation of 189619.

Another tale entitled "Tale of the Villain and the Dragon" has 32 lines20

European Dragons in Christianity and Sauroctons

Christianity integrated the fear of the dragon, and made it the symbol of pagan beliefs, opposed to Christianity, the image of barbarism, of the evil Beast, incarnation of Satan and paganism. The dragon will become, with the theme of the Apocalypse, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists.

The art inspired by it makes the dragon the image of sin and paganism, from which the saints and the martyrs triumph with brilliance. The Apocalypse of John describes the fight of the Dragon, and the Beast of the Earth against the divine Lamb. The dragon is chained for a thousand years, then comes the time of the final battle, and the defeated dragon gives way to the final reign of God.

Although dragon slayers appeared long before the Middle Ages in Europe, with the advent of Christianity, the ancient dragon slayers were canonized and given the name of sauroctons (from the Greek: sauros, "lizard" and ctonos, "slayer"). At the same time, they lost their original name to more Christian names (Saint Michael, Saint George...) and were subsequently canonized, or granted historically inconsistent feats (the historical Saint George killing a dragon several centuries after his own death).

The only testimony of these knights is an abundant and widely distributed medieval iconography inspired by pagan legends. It should be noted that some of these representations show variants of these creatures such as vouivres.

A Russian song is also dedicated to the fight against the dragon: Dobrinia and the dragon Gorynytch. The story is as follows: the dragon's home is the river Poutchaï, a river of fire that swallows all intruders and leads them straight to the dragon's cave, which has no other purpose than to swallow the unwary. Dobrynia Nikitich bathed in it twice.

The first time, he took the cap of the Greek land and used it to knock him out. This cap symbolizes the Orthodox faith and thus makes the dragon the emanation of paganism, to be destroyed without mercy.

The second time, Prince Vladimir entrusts Dobrinia with the mission of fighting the dragon and rescuing his niece Zabava and the prisoners it contains. Dobrinia cuts off the twelve heads of the dragon in the classical way and brings back the prisoners.

The "cousins" of the dragons

The term "dragon" covers many creatures according to the traditions, having different forms. Sometimes imaginary reptiles are assimilated to dragons, the main variation being in their limbs:

  • snakes, sea serpents, wyrm, asp, basilisk, etc. ;
  • the lindworm: unlike the snake, the lindworm has two front legs;
  • the vouivre: the vouivre (or wyvern) gains two posterior limbs compared to the lindworm, while its front legs are transformed into wings.

European Dragons In modern beliefs

With the appearance of several neo-paganist movements such as Wicca, the image of the dragon resurfaced, outside the commercial sphere. Several beliefs developed around it, notably that of draconic magic, a kind of totemic shamanism concerning dragons.